TORONTO - If New York Rangers bad boy Sean Avery ends up being a target when he steps on to the Air Canada Centre ice Thursday night, will Colby Armstrong have a big bulging bulls-eye on his back as well?
Sorry if the Armstrong topic is interrupting your heated Avery debate but let’s be honest: Doesn’t this happen every time The Pickering Pest comes to town?
Fans and media, including yours truly, blab ad nauseum about Avery’s schtick and how the Leafs will seek retribution once the puck is dropped.
Of course, more often than not, so many of these grudge matches that arrive with heaps of hype never live up to the billing anyway.
Besides, much of the propaganda is created through blue-and-white coloured glasses. Heaven help any despicable goon who picks on the beloved Leafs.
But take a moment to consider how the other half — in this case, the New York Rangers and their backers — feel.
For the next 2-4 weeks, at least, the Rangers will be missing their most skilled player in Marian Gaborik, who was lit up by an Armstrong hit during the Leafs 4-3 overtime victory at Madison Square Garden last Friday and suffered a separated left shoulder.
If that’s not fodder for the Broadway Blueshirts and their loyal supporters, what is?
Armstrong received a boarding minor but there was never any subsequent talk of a possible suspension, at least from the league’s point of view. Nor does Armstrong feel there should have been.
“I try to play the game hard,” Armstrong said Wednesday. “I don’t run out of position to hit anyone or hurt anyone. I take a hit if it’s there.
“In (the Gaborik) instance, I was going around the corner with him one on one. He turned his back on me so I actually tried to wrap him up and hold him against the boards. I didn’t knock him down or anything. I think he just went in awkward.
“It’s just one of those things that happened.”
Try telling that to the Rangers, who have not forgotten or forgiven Armstrong for sending Gaborik to the infirmary.
That doesn’t mean they’ve resorted to anything drastic like placing a bounty on Armstrong’s head. Hey, coach John Tortorella is a fiery emotional guy but he’s certainly not going to revert to Buddy Ryan-type tactics like that.
While Tortorella understands there might be some hard feelings that carry over into Thursday’s contest, he also knows his players can’t get carried away. That’s a message he says has been discussed among the team.
“We’re playing these guys two more times this month (first Thursday night, then
Oct. 30) and when you play that close, back-to-back, it can get heated,” Tortorella told New York reporters. “Sometimes there will be some bad blood. It should be intense. That’s what we need.
“We can’t focus on one thing. We’ve got to focus on winning. We’ll see how the game goes,” he added. “We’ll play hard.”
Goalie Henrik Lundqvist agreed.
“The past is the past,” he said. “There’s no point spending energy or time on what happened. People get hurt.
“We just have to make sure we stand up for each other.”
Truth be told, Armstrong was signed by Leafs general manager Brian Burke over the summer for occasions such as this. Two teams playing three times in 15 days. Brewing animosity from both sides. It’s the perfect situation for a guy like Armstrong who has a penchant for stirring things up — and enjoying it too.
Asked if he has ever seen a game with so much build-up and bad blood ever play out that way, Armstrong flashed a mischievous grin.
“At times,” he said. “It’s always the same. A lot of this stuff has happened before.
“I’m sure (the Rangers) are interested in getting two points more than anything. It’s part of the game. We’ll see what happens.
“I’ll just have to be ready for whatever.’